• Posted on July 29, 2015
Comic Art of Lynn Johnston

The Comic Art of Lynn Johnston

Few Canadian icons are as beloved as Lynn Johnston. Most everyone has read her Pulitzer Prize nominated comic strip For Better or For Worse, finding their own lives reflected in the everyday activities of the Patterson family. Unlike most comic strips, however, the characters aged and faced real-world issues that other popular forms of entertainment ignored. People, and I include myself here, were (and still are) emotionally invested in the characters and its creator Lynn Johnston. Now we have For Better or For Worse: The Comic Art of Lynn Johnston, and with it, a much richer portrait of the artist and woman behind the comic strip.

Published to coincide with an international touring exhibition of Lynn Johnston’s work (organized by the Art Gallery of Sudbury), For Better or For Worse: The Comic Art of Lynn Johnston is a retrospective of her best-loved strips, but beyond that, we are treated to her artistic development as a cartoonist and comic writer, or as Lynn puts it, “Fifty years of drawings, doodles, sketches, and scrawls”.

Lynn Johnston FarleyIt was an education that began almost at birth. Lynn’s aunt and mother were artists, and comic books and the ‘funny pages’ were not only encouraged they were preferred reading material.

Johnston’s father was a mild-mannered student of comedy, especially the slapstick shenanigans of the silent comedy era.

“We didn’t watch these films like an ordinary audience; we studied them. He would run scenes back and forth to show us how gags were set up, how everything was choreographed exactly to look spontaneous or to look like an accident. He wanted to see how comedy was created. If there was a formula to ‘funny’, he wanted to find out what that was.”

Nothing in the Ridgeway household was taboo, other than the expression of serious emotion and MAD Magazine, which her mother thought was crude. (Lynn read it anyway.) And still, growing up Ridgway had its challenges. Though generally supportive of her daughter’s early artistic explorations, her mother withheld praise and affection, and in combination with episodes of physical abuse, instilled a deep sense of insecurity and a combative, authority-averse impulsivity. An eccentric household steeped in the opposing forces of a passivity and dominance was the incubator of a great, if troubled artist, but as Lynn states, “If you can’t say it right out, joke about it.”

Of her early life and career, so much of it reads like the evolution of a woman destined to become a comedic artist: class clown, obsessive doodler, observant, irreverent, socially aware, outsider, genetically inclined to laugh at life. All of it poured into the comic strip that would make her famous, For Better or For Worse, which debuted in September, 1979.

Art Gallery of Sudbury 2

When For Better or For Worse first appeared in the newspapers, I read it not just as someone invested in the life of the Patterson family, but as an artist, enthralled (and more than a little jealous) of the beauty and fluidity of her line. The nuances and quirks of body language revealed at least as much (and usually much more) about the character’s emotional state as did the dialogue, deepening the humour and adding a layer of relatability unusual for a cartoon family.

The complex narratives captured in a few panels and a swish of her pen seemed effortless, but it’s a style that evolved over years of personal and professional illustration, samples of which are happily included in this book (and in the exhibition). As a Canadian, I was particularly pleased to see homegrown locations and place names show up in For Better or For Worse, which is a bold move for a Canadian comic strip with international aspirations.

On a personal note, I had the great pleasure of meeting Lynn Johnston on multiple occasions as a employee of a large, independent bookstore in Edmonton. She was always gracious and funny, easy to talk to, with large, beautiful blue eyes. She gave me a great piece of artistic advice which I adhere to – keep your originals. I sent her a personal thank you letter after one of her visits, and she replied – in her unmistakable handwriting. For several years we exchanged Christmas cards. Above my drafting table hangs a framed, personalized autograph with all the Patterson family. It is no word of a lie to say that Lynn Johnston is one of my artistic heroes, but with For Better or For Worse: The Comic Art of Lynn Johnston, she has become something better – a brilliant, messy, complex, and entirely original human being.

The Comic Art of Lynn Johnston

The first woman and the first Canadian to win the National Cartoonist Society’s Reuben Award for Outstanding Cartoonist of the Year, retired from creating new cartoons for the strip in 2010, but For Better or For Worse continues on in syndication, revisiting the early days of the strip for a new generation. In 1992, Lynn Johnston was made a Member of the Order of Canada, our country’s highest civilian honour

For Better or For Worse: The Comic Art of Lynn Johnston by Lynn Johnston and Katherine Hadway, published by Goose Lane Editions and the Art Gallery of Sudbury, 2015

  • Posted on June 30, 2015
Home cover

Home

A very important person in my life once said that if at all possible, when writing, try to avoid cliché. I do my best. However, I can’t help expecting cliché from the children’s section in a bookstore. According to the American Library Association, there are 21,878 children’s books published every year, and I would guess that 21,700 of those are cliché. It’s endemic. Also, most authors have not met my very important person (unfortunately for them), and so have not been given this useful piece of advice.

The reason I am talking about cliché is that the recently published Home, which admittedly does tread over familiar territory, could have lapsed into cliché, but Carson Ellis takes the subject matter and twists it on its end. Her interpretation of the word home, and its depiction, is inventive and thoughtful. As one would expect of a Carson Ellis book (her first as author), the art is beautiful. The over-size pages allow the gouache & ink illustrations to breath in perfect balance with the white space. Home is an immersive book. Once you enter, you’ll never want to leave.

Home Shoe

There is no storyline in Home. Each page or double-page spread is a type of home. Sometimes the home is an actual abode, sometimes it is of no fixed address:

Home is a house in the country.

And some folks live on the road.

This is the home of a Kenyan blacksmith.

Sea homes. Bee homes. Hollow tree homes.

Home Norse

And so on. The narrative is in the illustrations, each of which invite further investigation. Why is that kid mooning his family on top of the shoe where they presumably live? Is that the artist herself, down below, drawing on the shoe? And are there really people, or something, living on the moon? There are a lot of laughs, some hidden, some obvious, in Home, but the best is the appearance of The Grateful Dead riding in their home – a tour bus, with Jerry Garcia visible in one of the windows. Then again, maybe it’s a bunch of hippie Deadheads following the band, or maybe it isn’t the Dead at all. I know that Ellis designs album covers for The Decemberists, so perhaps it’s them on the bus. This amusing detail will be lost on children, but even without knowing the character’s true identities, the illustration would still be funny and engaging.

Interestingly, the second last page is reserved for the artist in her studio, and on the wall are trinkets and references from the previous pages, including an ‘all-access pass’ lanyard. To the Dead? To the Decemberists? By giving just enough detail, visually and narratively, Ellis leaves room for additional storytelling. She poses interesting questions and answers a few, but for the most part, Home is a place of imagination. Home could be anything, or anywhere.

Home Grateful Dead

My favourite journey is the one home. I’m an introvert. A homebody. It’s not that I don’t like to travel, but when I do, a part of me can’t wait for it to be over so that I can relive it. At home. I am predisposed to love a book that celebrates my favourite place, but I think I would love anything by Carson Ellis. I first became aware of her art with the 2010 publication of Dillweed’s Revenge: A Deadly Dose of Magic, written by Florence Parry Heide. This book in particular has a comically macabre, Goreyesque flavour, probably because of the subject matter, but I don’t see this in Home. It is comic, but Home is also a flat-out work of art – stunning, culturally diverse, and beautifully imagined. It is one of the most exquisite books published this year (or any year), and I expect to see it on many best-of lists at the end of 2015, including mine.

Home In StudioCARSON ELLIS was born in 1975 in Vancouver, Canada. She was raised in suburban New York and college-educated at the University of Montana in Missoula, where she earned a BFA in Painting in 1998. She received a 2010 Silver Medal from the Society of Illustrators for her art in Dillweed’s Revenge. She is the illustrator of The Composer is Dead by Lemony Snicket, and has collaborated with her husband Colin Meloy on the best-selling Wildwood series. Carson lives in Portland, Oregon with her husband and sons, and according to her website, an unfathomable multitude of tree frogs.
HOME by Carson Ellis. Published by Candlewick Press, 2015
 Watch Carson Ellis introduce HOME

  • Posted on June 10, 2015
The Skunk

The Skunk

There is a type of plot device I find irresistible: when a seemingly innocuous element is introduced into a story which proceeds to throw the protagonist’s life into chaos. One of the best examples is Patrick Süskind’s The Pigeon, but it doesn’t really matter, because what’s true in fiction is often true in life. For most of us, a certain predictability is desirable. Though we may rail against it, routine is stabilizing, even comforting. When it is disrupted, everything, and everyone, falls into question, and who we become in the midst of uncertainty is where the real story begins.

The Skunk doorstep

In Mac Barnett and Patrick McDonnell’s wonderfully sly new picture book The Skunk, a man is utterly discombobulated by the sudden appearance of chaos on his doorstep. Chaos, in this particular instance, takes the form of a skunk, as the title suggests. Not a normal skunk, which would unnerve anyone, but a skunk in dogged pursuit of some unnamed thing…or person. Impeccably dressed in a tux and bow-tie and on his way to the opera, the man does not wish to startle the skunk, so he backs away The Skunk sidewalkslowly and heads down the street. The skunk follows. The creature is neither friendly nor unfriendly, but he is always there, around the corner, sitting at a nearby table, matching the man’s actions move for move. The man confronts the skunk, offering various forms of appeasement like a saucer of milk and his own pocket watch, but the skunk is not interested. His paranoia rises. The skunk continues his pursuit from cemetery to carnival, finally cornering the man on a dead-end street. We never find out the skunk’s true intent because the man jumps down the sewer and starts running until he ends up in another part of the city. He buys a new house and starts his life over. But even as he celebrates, the anxiety persists. Something is missing.

“I thought about the skunk. What was he doing? Was he looking for me? Was he back in his burrow? Was he following someone else? I left the party to find my skunk.”

My skunk.

Is The Skunk the first children’s picture book to explore Stockholm Syndrome? Nah. Maybe. It would be easy to write an entire review about the psychological undercurrents in this book (I’m already half way down that path), but it would be at the cost of its other pleasures. Simply put, The Skunk is very clever storytelling. The entire idea is funny, and Barnett’s pacing is exquisite, building slowly to a twist (and slightly twisted) ending.

The Skunk dead end

And then there is Patrick McDonnell’s art. McDonnell has been such a frequent subject in this blog, I should have exhausted my superlatives long ago, but his artistic brilliance continues to inspire even as my ability to praise (in an original way) shrinks. The teaming of Barnett and McDonnell is perfection on a number of levels. Considering the subject matter, one might expect the skunk to appear menacing, but just the opposite is true. McDonnell’s skunk is adorable. His bushy tail curls over like a musical note, sweetly dwarfing the rest of the skunk’s tiny body, and his facial features bare some resemblance to the loveable cat Mooch from McDonnell’s cartoon strip Mutts, especially the red, over-sized nose. Throughout the book, McDonnell’s beautifully realized illustrations – master classes in characterization and line – bring humour and light to each scene, even as the story darkens.

But the apparent innocence of the skunk is deceptive, or at least, dual-purposed. With the exception of the last scene, the skunk’s face is expressionless. Calm. This makes it impossible for the man to know the skunk’s real intent. Is it malicious, or just a poorly expressed attempt at friendship? It’s possible he is over-reacting to the situation, but then again, maybe not. Chaos. The unknowable is what drives the man to make a desperate move and start a new life on the other side of town. The funny thing is, when the skunk is no longer in pursuit, he misses it. He goes after it. The pursued becomes the pursuer. In spite of the title, The Skunk is really about the man. The skunk doesn’t change. This is why teaming McDonnell with Barnett is so perfect. If the skunk had been an obvious baddie, the story could be read in a more straightforward way, but thanks to the subtle, artful intelligence of McDonnell and Barnett, there is much more going on. More questions, more nuance, and certainly, more fun.

The Skunk is brilliant and inscrutable, and like the character(s) in the book, it will stick with you for a very, very long time.

The Skunk looking up

Mac Barnett is no stranger to funny, occasionally subversive kids books. Just within the last couple of years, the prolific, California-based author has written at least two books that share a mischievous affinity with The Skunk: the take-down masterpiece Battle Bunny, and the award-winning Sam and Dave Dig a Hole, beautifully illustrated by a fellow-subverter Jon Klassen. (Barnett previously teamed with Klassen on Extra Yarn.) I am giddily looking forward to the upcoming Leo: A Ghost Story (illustrations by Christian Robinson), to be published in August.

Patrick McDonnell is the creator of the incredibly endearing, kind-hearted, and funny cartoon strip Mutts. Aside from the annual collections of his strips, McDonnell has also written and illustrated several stand-alone picture books, including the Caldecott Honor-winning Me…Jane (about Jane Goodall’s childhood), and my personal favourite South. I have reviewed most of Patrick McDonnell’s books, and rather than list them here, please click on the Picture Book Archive on the left hand side and scroll down the list for additional reviews. McDonnell is a member of the national board of directors for both the Humane Society of the United States and the Fund for Animals. His art is beautiful. He is beautiful. I can’t say enough.

THE SKUNK by Mac Barnett, illustrations by Patrick McDonnell. Published by Roaring Brook Press, 2015

For a mini-review of Battle Bunny, click HERE and scroll down. For another mini-review of Sam & Dave Dig a Hole, click HERE. (Both books deserve longer reviews, I know. Until then, I strongly recommend both books. Strongly. Recommend.)

  • Posted on May 17, 2015
Sidewalk Flowers little girl

Sidewalk Flowers

This is it. Sidewalk Flowers is one of those books. A book that gets it right. All of it. The writing, the tone, the illustrations, and above all, the sentiment. At it’s core Sidewalk Flowers is a story about Sidewalk Flowers coverkindness, and radiating from that – gratitude and appreciation. It’s also about opening our eyes, seeing the small things that so often pass us by. Author JonArno Lawson found the perfect illustrator in Sydney Smith and together they create a world that is decidedly urban, but not necessarily cold. It’s true there is little colour at the beginning of the story, but the scenes are rich with life – if you just know where to look.

Sidewalk Flowers picking dandelions

The fact that a young girl is able to find quiet beauty in her bustling surroundings is not surprising. Children are very good at noticing what we ignore; what we are too distracted or hurried to see. The wordless story is told in a series of panels, almost like a graphic novel. In an otherwise black & white setting, the only colour is the red of the girl’s hoodie as she walks hand in hand with her father through the city streets. This is a particularly good device, as the vivid colour draws us in, slows us down, until we see what she sees: a yellow flower growing in a crack in the sidewalk, a stand of fruit, a woman’s flowery dress, the little lives that are lost, the big lives that are equally lost. She places her flowers on the breast of a dead bird, picks more flowers – drinking in their scent. She hooks a purple flower into the shoe of man sleeping (sleeping it off?) on a park bench. In one of the loveliest scenes of the book she shakes the paw of a dog and then places a bouquet under his collar. Unlike her father who is busy with his errands and only passively attentive to her, the girl is engaging directly with her world, and in a quiet, childlike way, she is saying  – I SEE YOU. Sidewalk Flowers reminds us that at every moment, we have a chance to do something meaningful, even if it’s just acknowledging what, or who, is in front of us.

Sidewalk Flowers four panel

It’s important to note that the first flower she plucks from the sidewalk is not in fact a flower but a dandelion. A weed. To the girl, to any child, it is a beautiful flower, and she is right; dandelions are beautiful, but our ingrained adult prejudice prevents us from seeing a dandelion as anything but an annoyance, if we see it at all. In truth, dandelions are the first ‘flower’ of spring, dotting the landscape with bright colour and providing the first food for hungry bees, butterflies, and other insects. They are useful and deserving of our appreciation, if for nothing else than their ability to push though the meanest of circumstances, like a crack in the sidewalk, and thrive.

Sidewalk Flowers dog

The girl doesn’t know this, of course; she just thinks the weeds are pretty and that is enough, and when she feels moved, which is often, she shares her bouquets. These small acts of kindness go unseen by anyone except the recipients of her generosity and the reader, and in this way, the perspective is nicely played with, giving us a glimpse into her world, but also allowing us to watch her interact within this black & white urban setting, as if she herself is the flower. The vignettes gradually infuse with colour as the girl nears home; Lawson’s watercolours becoming softer and more saturated, particularly in the family scenes toward the end. And still, we see her – the little girl in the red hoodie, flower in her hair, surrounded by beauty wherever she goes. It’s all about the perspective, you see.

Sidewalk Flowers backyard

A three-time winner of the Lion and the Unicorn Award for Excellence in North American Children’s Poetry, JonArno Lawson is the author of numerous books for children and adults, including Enjoy It While It Hurts, Down in the Bottom of the Bottom of the Box, and Think Again. He lives in Toronto with his wife and three children. Great interview HERE about writing a picture book without words.

Sydney Smith was born in rural Nova Scotia, and has been drawing since an early age. Since graduating from NSCAD University, he has illustrated multiple children’s books, including the wordless picture book Sidewalk Flowers, and he has received awards for his illustrations, including the Lillian Shepherd Memorial Award for Excellence in Illustration. He now lives in Toronto and works in a shared studio space in Chinatown where he eats too many banh mi sandwiches and goes to the library or the Art Gallery of Ontario on his breaks. Read how Smith created the illustrations for Sidewalk Flowers HERE.

Sidewalk Flowers by JonArno Lawson, illustrations by Sydney Smith. Published by Groundwood Books, 2015

Sidewalk Flowers looking up

  • Posted on April 30, 2015
Outstanding in the Rain cover3

Outstanding In The Rain

Originality in children’s picture book illustration is a rarity, so when it comes around, it knocks your socks off, or sandals, depending on the weather. Outstanding in the Rain, Frank Viva’s newest book and the fifth in four years by this Toronto-based designer and illustrator, already feels like a classic, with the visual pop of a beloved mid-century picture book, re-imagined and re-energized for modern tastes. It is zingy and a little loopy, and I guarantee there is nothing else like it on the shelves, unless you include Viva’s previous books, and even then, Outstanding in the Rain is still entirely its own wonderful thing.

Outstanding in the Rain slide

I think the word that best describes Outstanding in the Rain, and all of Viva’s work, is inventive. And then – pick your adverb: playfully, beautifully, delightfully, knee-slappingly, humourously, ridiculously…ETC. The inventiveness, in this particular case, is not in the story but in how the story is told. A boy and his family spend the day at an amusement park (Coney Island) celebrating his birthday, going on rides, eating junk food, playing on the beach, and getting caught in the rain. A typical carnival narrative, which is secondary to the wordplay evoked by the clever use of momentum-building die-cuts: ICE CREAM becomes OH NO I SCREAM on the next page (as a result of a toppled cone), followed by THOSE SANDWICHES THERE to ON THE SAND WHICH IS THERE, and so on. As each page is turned, the die-cut frames an image from the previous page, transforming it into an entirely new thing. To quote the book jacket, Outstanding in the Rain, itself a play on words, is ‘A Whole Story With Holes’.

Outstanding in the Rain scream

It is also a whole story with a whole lotta beautiful art. With relatively few words in the book, and an equally minimalistic (but definitely not subdued) palette, the story still feels big and boisterous. It is a cartoon without being cartoonish. Perhaps it is the highly stylized shapes – loosely human and loosely architectural – where nothing is detailed but a lot is going on and everything is recognizable (if not comically exaggerated). Or the graphic sensibility that underpins the design, even as it simultaneously plays with it. One thing is obvious: Frank Viva is a master of colour. His books vibrate. This is particularly true with Outstanding in the Rain, which has (I swear) an audible hum as the blocks of turquoise, umber and orange spark and bump up against each other on the page. For children and adults, the book demands multiple reads to take in all the narrative and visual mischief. Outstanding in the Rain is, in short, a carnival, and twice as much fun.

Outstanding in the Rain roller coaster

I have a theory. Outstanding in the Rain is either number three of a trilogy or part of an ongoing series. In Along a Long Road, the cyclist passes an ice cream truck (and, I should add, an amusement park). In A Long Way Away, there is an ice cream truck, perhaps the same truck, on a road. In Outstanding in the Rain, an ice cream shop is front and centre. Either it is intentional and this book is connected to the others by the appearance of ice cream in one form or another, or Frank is subconsciously controlled by frozen desserts. If it’s the former, bravo, if it’s the latter – Mr Viva…I can relate.

Outstanding in the Rain authorFrank Viva is an award-winning illustrator, designer, and presumed ice-cream lover. His brilliant work frequently graces the covers of The New Yorker, and other magazines. According to his website, Frank also likes bikes and public transit, and is the founder and managing director of Viva & Co.

Outstanding in the Rain by Frank Viva. Published by Tundra Books, 2015

Other reviews (click on links):

Young Frank Architect by Frank Viva (Museum of Modern Art, 2013)

A Long Way Away by Frank Viva (HarperCollins, 2013)

Along a Long Road by Frank Viva (HarperCollins, 2011)

Here’s a wonderful article from the New Yorker about the creation of Outstanding in the Rain

  • Posted on April 23, 2015
Time For Bed Fred books

Dogs!

I am a dog person, and my attraction to those of the canine persuasion extends to my taste in picture books. Old dogs and pups, dogs in capes, stinky dogs, dogs who run curio museums, dogs named Plum, dog-like coyotes and wolves, and just plain old mutts; each in possession of some unique quality of dog captured and expressed by the best writers and illustrators around. I love ’em all, so why not run them in a pack? Gather all the reviews in one post, for my own amusement, yes, but also to provide a helpful list for fellow barkophiles in search of beautiful dog books. Of course, this is but a smattering of what is available, and there are still dog books on my shelves that have yet to make it to this blog, but for now I invite you to play ball with these titles, which are listed in no particular order. Click on the links for the original, and in most cases, much longer reviews.

Dream Dog cover4I want to start with DREAM DOG by Lou Berger, with illustrations by David Catrow. Dogs display an infinite range of emotions, and not just on their faces. From a wave of a tail to the swivel of an ear, dogs radiate emotion with their entire body. Not only has David Catrow mastered the art of dog expressiveness, together Berger and Catrow have captured the joy so many of us feel in the presence of a dog. Dream Dog is a wondrous, funny book, full of kid energy and soaring hearts (mostly my own).

Dream Dog Waffle and Bumper

Frustratingly dogless, Harry uses his X-35 Infra-Rocket Imagination Helmet to conjure up a dream dog because his father, sensitized by his work in a pepper factory, sneezes around real dogs. Harry’s dog Waffle is big and friendly – an adorable mix of actual breeds and a boy’s sweet imagination. Eventually, Harry’s dad gets another job and buys Harry a real dog, who he names Bumper. All three become friends until one day Waffle races after a cloud and simply wafts away, “woofing happily” as Bumper and Harry play in the field below. Dream Dog will hit you in the feels in the best possible way.

Say Hello to Zorro!Speaking of books that drive straight to the heart, I cannot say enough about the Zorro and Mister Bud series about two unlikely housemutts who have (so far) starred in three books: SAY HELLO TO ZORRO, ZORRO GETS AN OUTFIT, and MISTER BUD WEARS THE CONE. Carter Goodrich has not only created funny and exceedingly loveable characters, he has also imbued them with the full range of dog emotion, from joy to shame, without losing sight of their essential dogginess. The ample-snouted Mister Bud and his energetic roomie Zorro (a pug) have the sort of localized adventures familiar to most dogs (and their people) and it is in these otherwise ‘normal’ situations that Goodrich finds the extraordinary: the moments of emotional truth, the humour, the pathos, and the beautifully observant way he expresses the body language of dogs.

Zorro Gets an Outfit stick

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  • Posted on April 16, 2015
Hurry Hurry Mary Dear cover3

Hurry, Hurry, Mary Dear

Years ago, I used to work in an independent bookstore. Of the many customers who came my way, most have faded into the past. Sandy Muldrew is one of the memorable few. Not only have we remained friends, he shared, and continues to share, my passion for beautifully illustrated picture books. Although our (superb) tastes frequently overlap, our collections diverge, and so I thought – why not spread the passion around and invite him to write about one of his favourites? I am pleased to say, it worked! And so, I will turn this blog over to Sandy for the first, (and hopefully not the last), guest post:

When Donna asked me to write a guest blog for 32 Pages, I wasn’t sure if I had a worthy book that she had not yet touched upon. Recently, I have been relying solely on her excellent recommendations to add to my collection of illustrated treasures (and subtract from my bank account). But then I remembered a perfect candidate – it’s one of my seasonal favourites – Hurry, Hurry, Mary Dear. While not exactly a children’s book, it is more of a charming poem illustrated with mirthful joy, written and illustrated by N.M. Bodecker in 1975 and then re-illustrated as a tribute by Erik Blegvad in 1997. They were two Danish expats and lifelong friends who shared an art studio in Connecticut. And this is where the poem itself takes place – on a farmhouse in New England – which is appropriate because the heroine of the piece embodies the pioneering spirit of Plymouth Rock. In fact, despite being thin as a rail, she is able to accomplish more in one day than the rest of us could hope to achieve in one year.

Hurry Hurry Mary Dear dill the pickles

The poem begins innocently enough with Mary’s layabout husband issuing the first of his many edicts: “Hurry, hurry, Mary dear, fall is over, winter’s here,” he yawns from the comfort of his warm bed. “Not a moment to be lost, in a minute we get frost! In an hour we get snow! Drifts like houses! Ten below!” At this, from dawn’s early light to dusk and night, we witness Mary’s super-human endurance as she completes one impossible task after another. All the while, she shows the patience of a saint as she is put through the paces by the constant commandments issued by her unseen spouse (supposedly from somewhere deep within the warm house – far, far away from draughts). “Pick the apples, dill the pickles, chop down trees for wooden nickels. Dig the turnips, split the peas, cook molasses, curdle cheese.” As the harvesting becomes increasingly ridiculous (cook molasses??), it is all offset by the wonderfully humourous illustrations of the scrawny Mary with her sharp nose, tiny feet, and ever-present apron and black stockings. She wields her axes and shovels like Hercules taking on the Hydra and Cerberus.

Hurry Hurry Mary Dear chop3

“Churn the butter, smoke the hams, can tomatoes, put up jams. Stack the stove wood, string the beans, up the storms and down the screens.”

Hurry Hurry Mary Dear molasses

Through all of this – as the wind picks up, the leaves fall, the trees bend, and snowflakes appear – our poor Mary, flushed and frazzled, seems to age twenty years. Her nose reddens, her hair becomes disheveled, and her back bends like an exhausted hunchback. As day turns to night, the impending snowstorm descends upon the house with it’s full fury. Mary finally retreats indoors but her day is far from done.

“Pull the curtains, close the shutters. Dreadfully the wild wind mutters. Oil the snowshoes, stoke the fires. Soon the roads are hopeless mires. Mend the mittens, knit the sweaters, bring my glasses, mail my letters.”

Hurry Hurry Mary Dear kitchen

Dutifully she scurries about and obeys the offscreen patriarch who we finally see again – stuffed into his rocker with slippered feet, pillow and pipe. “Toast the muffins, hot and sweet and good for me. Bake me doughnuts, plain and frosted…What, my dear? You feel exhausted? Yes, these winters are severe! Hurry, hurry…” With that, like the tea, she finally reaches her boiling point and dumps it all over his head “…Mary dear.” Perfect!

I love this poem not only for it’s humour but also for it’s comforting notion of winter hibernation. Thankfully none of us have to go through the Herculean efforts of Mary, but, still, there is always autumnal work to be done to ready one’s house for the season’s first snowfall. Is there anything more comforting than getting all the leaves raked, the hoses put away, the garden dug, and the windows washed before the first flakes fly? As the furnace kicks in and you get that whiff of singed dust from it’s summer disuse, you can’t help but feel snug and smug. Sporting slippers and sweater, you survey your realm with satisfaction (from the warmth of your indoor sanctuary). You brew a pot of tea, nibble on some biscuits, settle into your corner wingback, and open up a good book. And, all the while, the wild wind mutters. There is a primitive pleasure in this. It Hurry Hurry Mary Dear wind muttershearkens back to the first time we crawled into a cave to escape the elements. Despite the absence of biscuits (not yet invented), we, nevertheless, overcame the cold and the wet by lighting a fire, huddling together, and telling stories. Then, as now, we are still lulled to sleep as the muffled storm rages outside. While, today, it is much easier to keep warm and dry, the sense of satisfaction persists. We still take great comfort in retreating indoors and shutting the door on the cold – and that is wonderfully conveyed in a poem like Hurry, Hurry, Mary Dear. Every fall, I reread it to experience, once again, that feeling of gezelligheid. I hope you will seek out this book and when the snows arrive next November (or possibly October…), you too, will be entertained and warmed by it.
(P.S. Watch for Mary’s constant companion – the ever-present black cat. It appears in every scene – sometimes in the foreground, often in the background, and once in shadow only.)

Review by Sandy Muldrew

Hurry, Hurry Mary Dear written by N.M. Bodecker, illustrations by Erik Blegvad. This edition published by Margaret K. McElderry, 1998

  • Posted on March 28, 2015
Mr Squirrel and the Moon 3

Mr Squirrel and the Moon

It’s been a little over five years since I started this blog, and rather fittingly, I am reviewing a book by the illustrator who inaugurated this space – Sebastian Meschenmoser, a German artist with an unusual flare for drawing squirrels. That original review of Waiting for Winter introduced readers of this blog – which I understand has grown beyond a few (reluctant) members of my family – to my deeply held belief that books have a way of finding us, of making their presence known.

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  • Posted on February 23, 2015
Smelly Louie stretches

Smelly Louie

What makes a great illustration? It’s never one thing. Some artists have a flare for colour, others excel at characterization. And then, there is line. It can make or break an illustration, but in the right hands a single line, or a thousand, elevates the subject matter, in this case an odoriferous dog, to a thing of pure beauty. Catherine Rayner is a master of all three, infusing her newest book Smelly Louie with an artistry one might not associate with filth. Like Louie however, Rayner relishes dirt – in all its malodorous and absurdly gorgeous possibilities.

Smelly Louie large cover

The opening pages of Smelly Louie are splattered with paw prints and tiny flies as Louie takes the walk of shame to a bubble-filled bathtub. As anyone who has ever bathed a dog, it’s a lot of effort for very little gain, especially for the pooch. In Louie’s case, smelling like roses and apple blossom is not something he has ever aspired to, and he spends the rest of the book trying to recover his ‘Special Smell’. Admiring the stench wafting off a fox in the garden, Louie inquires as to its origin, and the fox directs him toward an old boot in the brambles.

Smelly Louie Special Smell

“The boot smelt good, like mouldy cheese. But something was still missing.”

Smelly Louie BootLouie gets progressively dirtier as he explores the neighbourhood, seeking help from the various creatures he encounters. Wiggling in ‘wonderfully whiffy’ sludge and ‘pongy ponds’, Louie layers smell after smell like a true stink connoisseur until he finally achieves his own personal nirvana – his Special Smell. Rayner does a magnificent job visualizing Louie’s befouled, fly-ridden fur. In squibbles, splotches, and tangled strokes of watercolour and inks of varying widths and dirt tones, Louie’s coat comes alive with scent. Somehow, he is still beautiful, and the book itself is one of Rayner’s loveliest, and funniest outings. Perhaps it’s the joy Louie radiates as he returns home, proud and unrepentant, a haze of stench in his wake. Sadly, as Louie discovers shortly after entering the house, non-canines rarely appreciate the complexity or skill involved in the creation of a Special Smell. Sorry pal, we just don’t have the snout for it.

Smelly Louie wallows

All dogs smell. Fortunately, I had a virus a few years ago that, according to the doctor, laid a ‘catastrophic path of destruction’ deep into my nasal passages, rendering me unable to detect the finer nuances of canine stink. If I were to interpret my dog’s Special Smell, I would say it’s a mixture of old dirty pillow and biscuit crumbs, but I don’t think I’m getting the full olfactory picture. This is not the case with Smelly Louie. In a visual medium, Rayner plays with our senses, beautifully conveying the very essence of Louie – his smell, his Special Smell, and like all dogs, we get the sense that this is everything he wants us to know about him.

Smelly Louie bathes

Award-winning author and illustrator Catherine Rayner was born in Harrogate and now lives in Edinburgh. She has a BA Hons in Visual Communication and Illustration from Leeds College of Art and Edinburgh College of Art. Catherine’s other books include Sylvia and Bird, Norris, the Bear who Shared, Posy, Ernest and Solomon Crocodile. Harris Finds His Feet (reviewed HERE) won the 2009 Kate Greenaway Medal.

SMELLY LOUIE by Catherine Rayner, published by Macmillan, 2014

I have also previously reviewed the wonderful SYLVIA AND BIRD

  • Posted on December 24, 2014
Once Upon an Alphabet cover

And Now…Last But Not Least

And I mean that! As in previous years, I am at the end of 2014 without getting to the end of the to-be-reviewed books on my desk. Absolutely nothing to do with how I feel about these lovelies – I just ran out of time! Rather than carry them forward into the murky future, I would prefer to say a few words now, lest they be inexcusably ignored in favour of some pretty new thing in 2015. You know how that happens. Anyway, no order to this list, just deep appreciation and love. Longer reviews may follow…

Once Upon an Alphabet-Oliver Jeffers (HarperCollins, 2014) This book has been on many ‘best of’ lists this year for all the usual Jeffersonian superlatives: it’s beautiful, funny, and deeply endearing. Also stupidly, ridiculously, unbelievably brilliant. Each letter of the alphabet is given its own short story. My favourite is ‘W’ for the Whiraffe: “The ingenious inventor had a favourite invention of all-the Whiraffe. It had the head of a whisk and the body of a giraffe. They became great friends over the years and enjoyed strawberries and whipped cream. The Whiraffe, of course, whipped the cream.” All the stories are wonderful and the art is inexplicably retro and original. It would be my favourite picture book of the year, except that The Farmer and the Clown hit me in the feels in a way that no other book did in 2014.

Oliver Jeffers V

 Sam & Dave Dig a Hole cover2Sam & Dave Dig a Hole-Mac Barnett, illustrations by Jon Klassen (Candlewick Press, 2014) Individually and collaboratively, these guys are redefining the children’s picture book genre in ways that haven’t been seen since Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith gave us The Stinky Cheese Man. Seriously, who writes a book about digging a hole? Don’t be fooled. Shoveling dirt may seem mundane, but Barnett and Klassen elevate the subject matter way beyond its assumed possibilities, turning Sam & Dave Dig a Hole into a great, boyish adventure with a delicious twist of wry, mind-bending humour. It also says something about the human condition: always striving, never quite achieving, up for anything.

Gustave-Rémy Simard, illustrations by Pierre Pratt (Groundwood Books, 2014) If you like odd, existential tales, steeped in grief, with a tinge of dark humour – or Gustave coverif you’re Russian, Gustave is the book for you. It begins with this: “He’s gone,” followed by a heart-wrenching illustration of a little mouse in tormented grief after Gustave, his brother, is killed by a cat. Gustave has sacrificed himself to save his brother, leaving his sibling with a whopping case of survivor’s guilt. The little mouse wanders the unfriendly streets fretting about what to tell his mother. To say the story ends in an unusual way would not be understating it; putting the Gustave detailbook in a different, decidedly comical light. Gustave is not about grief per se – it is entirely (and wonderfully) its own unique thing. I kinda love it. I love its courage and its strangeness. The illustrations by three-time Governor-General’s Award recipient Pierre Pratt are both beautiful and suitably tortured. Colours appear scraped and textured, dimly lit, brooding. The mice, however, are full of character and charm. Gustave is not for everyone, but I promise, it will be an experience.

Gustave's brother grieves

Mutts Diaries coverThe Mutts Diaries-Patrick McDonnell (Andrews McMeel, 2014) As the title suggests, this book is a collection of Mutts cartoons organized by character into diary entries. A great introduction for those who are new to this magnificent cartoon created by Patrick McDonnell. It is also perfect for the devotees (such as myself) who have favourite characters and wish to read their stories in concentrated form – in particular Guard Dog, the perpetually chained bulldog who is loveable and kind in spite of his cruel restraints. An excellent companion to the annual treasuries (for 2014: Living the Dream) and all the other Mutts related publications.

A Perfectly Messed-Up Story-Patrick McDonnell (Little, Brown & Company, 2014) An unusual publication from my very favourite person Patrick McDonnell in that it does not contain any of his Mutts characters. It is a stand-alone picture book about rejecting perfectionism in favour of embracing life’s inevitable messiness. Literally, that is; the book is covered in jam and peanut butter stains, much to the frustration of the main character Louis, who is merely trying to tell his story. I’m not so sure I’d be happy about someone messing up my books either, but the point is well-taken. The book reminds me of the Daffy Duck cartoon where the cartoonist intrudes on Daffy’s personal space. A Perfectly Messed-Up Story, like all of McDonnell’s stories, is deceptively simple, subversively Zen, and full of charm (and a bit of strawberry jam).

Perfectly Messed Up Story cover

Kuma Kuma Chan coverKuma-Kuma Chan, The Little Bear-Kazue Takahashi (Museyon, 2014) Originally published in 2001 in Japan, Kuma-Kuma Chan, The Little Bear is newly translated into English, and it is surely one of the sweetest, most endearing books I’ve read this year. A tiny book about a tiny, puff-ball bear living in the mountains, Kuma-Kuma Chan is charm personified. An unseen narrator wonders what Kuma-Kuma Chan does all day, and so page by page we learn the habits of the inventively self-entertaining bear: what he eats, how he plays, and all the other simple rituals of home life. Some activities are a little quirky; for instance, lining up the trimmings from his nails and gazing at them. Other pursuits speak to Kuma-Kuma Chan’s appreciation of the simple pleasures of a solitary life, like listening to the rain, or taking naps. The illustrations are soft and childlike, beautifully mirroring the quiet, meditative tone of the book. With shelves of loud, intentionally ironic children’s books trying mightily to attain cross-generational appeal, it’s wonderful to read a book that is genuinely sweet and gentle – aimed specifically at young children. It’s easy to see why this book is so popular in Japan. Hopefully Kuma-Kuma Chan, The Little Bear will spark interest here in North America.

Winter Moon Song cover

Winter Moon Song-Martha Brooks, illustrations by Leticia Ruifernández (Groundwood Books, 2014) I’ve not read many folktales about rabbits. Certainly, rabbits figure prominently in children’s literature (and my backyard), but they tend toward the fuzzy side of things, less on the mythological. (The long ears lack gravitas, I guess.) In the lovely Winter Moon Song, Martha Brooks gives us an ethereal rabbit story that reads like an old folktale and is, in fact, distilled from various legends about mother rabbit and the rabbit moon. Rabbit moon? Yes, I suppose shadows falling across the face of the moon do, at times, resemble a rabbit, especially when brought to life by Spanish illustrator Leticia Ruifernández. Wishing to honour his ancestral past in a meaningful way, a young rabbit, ‘not so small as to be a still-doted-upon baby, yet not so big enough to be noticed’, sings the traditional Winter Moon Song on a violet-infused winter night ‘to lighten the darkest month of the year with a trail of magic.’ Winter Moon Song is a story simply, and exquisitely told.

Cats are Cats coverCats are Cats-Valeri Gorbachev (Holiday House, 2014) For all those who appreciate cats, of all stripes. Miss Bell brings home a kitty from a pet store, and discovers, rather late, that the cat is in fact, a tiger. She loves him anyway, even as he lays waste to her home. Frankly, an actual kitty will lay waste to your home. When it comes to cats, size does NOT matter. Miss Bell buys some fish for her cat, not as food, but as companions. One of the fish…well, as Miss Bell says, fish are fish (even when they’re sharks). The illustrations by Ukraine emigre Valeri Gorbachev are sweet and funny. This is one tiger I would definitely invite over for tea.

Cats are Cats detail

Mr Chicken Lands On London-Leigh Hobbs (Allen & Unwin, 2014) In September, I visited London, England – very briefly, to see Kate Bush perform and visit a few galleries. After many hours on planes, trains (but no automobiles), I wearily found my hotel in the centre of Hammersmith, and Mr Chicken Lands on Londonmuch to my surprise…shock, actually, I was presented with a package at the front desk. What it could be, or for that matter, who knew I was even in London, in that hotel? When I ripped open the package, it was a book – Mr Chicken Lands on London from my blogger friend Zoe at the brilliant Playing By the Book. How wonderful is that??? Though my touristy adventures in London over the next few days mirrored those of Mr Chicken, I do hope I was not as conspicuous as monsieur poulet, although I did spend an awful lot of time staring at oversized maps. It’s a terribly funny book, with lively, quirky art. Thanks again to Zoe for welcoming me to London in such brilliant fashion!

That’s it. Apologies to any books that have found their ways into the nooks and crannies of my bookshelves, too shy to be reviewed. I’ll find you, and I’ll be gentle. Until then, Merry Christmas (yes, I posted this hours before the blessed event), and my deepest, deepest, gratitude to the illustrators, authors, fellow bloggers, and readers who have made the 2014 reading year so grand. THANK YOU! XXOO